Books On Books Collection – Benjamin Shaykin

In late February 2011, HarperCollins announced new limits on e-book lending for libraries. Beginning March 7, e-books would only be allowed to circulate 26 times before the license expired and the book would need to be replaced.
— Benjamin Shaykin, colophon to Z-A (The Library of Babel)

Z-A (The Library of Babel) (2011)

Z-A (The Library of Babel) (2011)
Benjamin Shaykin
Perfect bound H230 x W155 mm. 336 pages. Acquired from Printed Matter, Inc., 23 September 2022.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Shaykin’s response to that HarperCollins announcement about its library customers’ purchases (or rather licenses) of its digital books was to create a physical book. Aptly he chose Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Library of Babel” with which to do it and, taking his alphabetic cue from HarperCollins’ precisely dictated number of loans, proceeded to repeat the story 26 times and, in reverse alphabetic order, to remove one letter at a time with each repetition.

This is a variant on the OuLiPo movement’s lipogrammatic (letter-removal) constraint, probably the most well-known example being Georges Perec’s Disparition (“A Void“), a mystery novel told with only words without the letter “e”. Another variant on the constraint can be found in Mark Dunn’s more recent work of Ella Minnow Pea, the epistolary novel about a small South Carolina town council’s outlawing use of the letter Z. A whole-word variant can be found in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, in which he creates a completely other, coherent novel from Bruno Schulz’s novel The Street of Crocodiles by cutting out words and letting the ones beneath appear. While this has a visual and tactile result far from Perec’s or Dunn’s work, its narrative remains just as intact.

The final pages of Shaykin’s variant, however, has a more purely visual rather than narrative cast. It is somehow the opposite of a reduction print, the process whereby an image is built up by removing chunks of the printing surface after each pass through the printer. At the end of Shaykin’s printed book, Borges’ narrative has been torn down letter by letter. We have a strange set of images achieved through removal, but it’s a Babel of nothing but punctuation marks and numerals. It is almost an anti-narrative, except that the satiric point of Z-A‘s narrative is clear: here is an analogue mirror to a topsy-turvy algorithmic policy bound to constrain access to books in a digital world that is boundless.

In the Books On Books Collection, other visual artists at play with erasure and excision are Jérémie Bennequin and Masoumeh Mohtadi. Like Shaykin, these artists are also engaged in another tradition of book art: inverse ekphrasis and homage to the textual author. Bennequin pays homage to Stéphane Mallarmé and creates book art from his Poème: Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard. Mohtadi pays homage to José Saramago and creates book art from his Ensaio sobre a Cegueira romance (“Blindness“).

Borges’s works, in particular, have been been a frequent choice for inverse ekphrasis. Examples in the collection include Ines v. Ketelhodt and Peter Malutzki’s Zweite Enzyklopädie von Tlön (2007), Aurélie Noury’s El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha by Pierre Ménard (after Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Ménard, auteur du Quichotte” in Fictions) (2009), and Hanna Piotrowska (Dyrcz)’s Twórca/The Maker (2016). Although the main point of Z-A is the satiric one, the book’s self-reflexiveness pays homage to that trait in “The Library of Babel” and so many of Borges’ other stories.

Further Reading

Notes on ‘Inverse Ekphrasis’ as a way into book art“. 16 June 2022. Bookmarking Book Art.

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